A British salvage team recently recovered $50 million in silver coins that had rested nearly 17,000 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean for more than 70 years, victims of a World War II U-boat attack.
The SS City of Cairo was carrying 100 tons of silver coins from Bombay to England when it was torpedoed 480 miles south of St. Helena, about 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janeiro, by German submarine U-68.
The silver rupees, which belonged to the British Treasury, had been called in by London to help fund the war effort, according to the BBC.
The recovery marks the deepest salvage operation in history.
The City of Cairo was cruising in the remote South Atlantic on Nov. 6, 1942, when the steamship’s tall plume of smoke was spotted by U-68. Captain Karl-Friedrich Merten ordered a single torpedo fired at the vessel, then waited 20 minutes for the 311 passengers and crew to take to the lifeboats before firing a second torpedo.
Merten famously directed them to the nearest land and said: “Goodnight. Sorry for sinking you,” according to the BBC.
While just six of 311 people aboard the City of Cairo died in the sinking, it would be three weeks before any of the six lifeboats would be located, with the last lifeboat at sea for 51 days before being found. During that time 104 of the 305 survivors died.
The City of Cairo went undiscovered until 2011 when a team led by British salvage expert John Kingsford located an unnatural object among the ridges and canyons of their South Atlantic search area.
Under a contract with the UK government, underwater salvage operation Deep Ocean Search worked for several weeks searching a “jumbled up sea floor” twice the size of London, Kingsford told the BBC.
“We weren’t convinced at first,” he said. “But you have to give your team their head if they say they’ve found something, so we looked.”
The object was indeed the City of Cairo, and the team recovered a “large percentage” of its $50 million treasure.
The deep-water salvage effort presented special challenges, including the combination of pressure, temperature, and other issues that resulted in multiple breakdowns of systems, according to The Guardian.
The salvage was completed in September 2013, but Deep Ocean Search has only now been given permission by the Ministry of Transport to announce it.
As well as the coins, the team brought up the propeller belonging to the second, fatal torpedo.
(Top: Photo of SS City of Cairo, built in 1915 and sunk in 1942 by U-68 in the South Atlantic.)